There’s something inherently dissatisfying about knowing that Bluebeard might be the Super-Breillat film, as Godard might put it. Bluebeard, a meta-reflexive adaptation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, is a crystallization of the French provocatrice’s usual themes of sororal rivalry and sexual demystification. It’s also an undiluted 80-minute shot of what makes Breillat so frustrating in her style of intellectual filmmaking. The Last Mistress, Breillat’s excellent last effort, was a departure of sorts from Breillat’s typical cinematic essay, a relatively unostentatious romantic epic about the seduction of a hot-blooded young hellcat that resembles the titular untamed beauty in Bizet’s Carmen. Bluebeard is a return to form in as much as Breillat’s films are defined by hertypically languid, nigh-inert style of filmmaking.
Breillat’s films typically invite viewers to mull over their consequences and appreciate various telling character traits for what they betray about their characters’ insecurities but it is always with the understanding that the characters are not to be approached on their own terms. Characters are not meant to be appreciated as characters but as ideas, sentiments, ideologies. Her style of filmmaking in that sense is a direct descendant of Eric Rohmer’s. And yet, it’s increasingly frustrating to note that while Bluebeard is Breillat’s most advanced treatise yet, she’s still not quite capable of sustaining both narrative dynamism and ideological potency for a narrative-length film (how’s that for a loaded turn of phrase?).
The story of Bluebeard, the wife-killing ogre, is set up as a story of commodified sexual expectations within a story of two young girls that each secretly want to believe in the promises of deferred romance and dread in that star. In the film’s fairy tale overplot, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton), a young peasant girl with no dowry, marries Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) and leaves her mother and her sulking sister Anne (Daphné Baiwir) behind to live in his enormous castle. In the film’s “real world” underplot, Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) teases her older sister Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) by telling her that story, relishing Marie-Anne’s discomfort at the film’s frightening ending. Marie-Anne of course isn’t upset because of the grisly fate that Marie-Catherine almost meets at her husband’s murderous hands but rather the suggestion that the child bride cannot find the fairy tale happiness she so richly deserves for her plucky attitude. In that sense, viewers can see Bluebeard as a full-length manifestation of the frustrated fairy tale wish fulfillment Breillat’s protagonists debate in Romance.
As with Fat Girl or Romance, the lifeblood of Breillat’s latest film is the way it does not emotionally attach itself to its subjects. Breillat treats her characters in the same way that Rohmer treated his subjects: as people-shaped things. This is not a result of sang froid or some manner of callous affectation (okay, maybe it is a little affected). On the contrary, Breillat shows a great affinity for both sets of siblings. Rather, what makes Breillat’s Bluebeard simultaneously so troubling and fascinating is that it appeals to the viewer’s need to find meaning in nuanced actions.
Breillat’s ideal viewer already knows Perrault’s fairy tale and is now looking to find her take on the subject in the way the characters’ movements give Breillat’s interpretation its Meaning. The foundation for ideologies, or in Breillat’s case counter-ideology, is meant to be sought out in telling lines of dialogue or declarative statements. As a conversation piece, Bluebeard will undoubtedly bring out the worst kind of snobby behavior in Breillat fans because it allows them the privilege of knowing that they are meant to quiz each other for answers afterwards, especially since that is what they now expect from a “Breillat film” (Or as Breillat’s ogre shrugs, “One should realize who one is, no?”).
And there’s a good deal of Meaning to be found if willing to rely on the nuance and sophistication of the dense screeds Breillat leaves behind on her human sandwichboards. The development of the timid/less mouthy of the two sisters in either pair of girls is naturally more attractive than the other one, though Marie-Anne does have a rather clever notion of what marriage is like (“Marriage is two people that love each other. And then, one day, they decide to become homosexuals. That’s true!”). If any character in the film can be sympathized with simply as a character, it’s Anne, whose smoldering air of defiant resentment is remarkable (“I didn’t choose to be buried alive.”). Still, while I can admire Breillat’s cinema of ideas and even find Bluebeard to be more satisfying the second time around, there’s no escaping the fact that this is a film that places heavy significance on loaded dialogue like: “There are always invasions. Barbarism is everywhere.” Give me the very un-Breillat Last Mistress over this any day.